First Responders United – St. John’s United Church in Cardinal, Ontario

Small Rural United Church opens doors to First Responders suffering from PTSD

CARDINAL — A United church in this small riverside community is reaching out to first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder with a unique treatment program aimed specifically at them.

The congregation of St. John’s United has renovated its church to accommodate fire, police, emergency service workers and 911 dispatchers, ER Nurses for five-day treatment retreats in a program it is calling First Responders United.

The program is the brainchild of Rev. Dr. Edward Murray of St. John’s United, who is uniquely qualified to run the retreats as a clinical psychologist and a former OPP officer.
Murray said the program is the only one in Canada that he knows of — and one of only a handful in North America — that is solely for first responders.

First responders deal with “a lot of tragedy and human suffering” that, coupled with the personal risk and stress of the job, can result in PTSD over time, he said.

The First Responders United program takes up to 12 participants at a time in an intensive five-day program of counselling and group therapy, Murray said. The group component is important, he said. A symptom of PTSD is that those affected often become withdrawn from their co-worders and families. By spending quality time with people of the same professions, the PSTD suffers learn that they are not alone and there is nothing “weird or weak” about them, Murray said.

Rev. Dr. Murray and a qualified team of psychotherapists are leading the sessions.
“There will be a lot of grieving and self-reflection” as the first responders focus on the reasons “why they crashed at this particular time in their lives,” Murray said.

The program is not a magic bullet in the treatment of PTSD, but it will provide a starting point for continued therapy once the five days are up, Murray said.

The participants learn about PTSD and they are taught some therapeutic techniques and strategies to enable them to lessen their symptoms. Importantly, they are teamed up with a fellow retreat partner whom they can call for support — a strategy akin to the sponsor system used in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Since the program is part of the church’s outreach mission, it is done on a non-profit basis at a price far cheaper than can be offered by private clinics, which often charge $7,500 to $10,000 a week, Murray said.

In contrast, First Responders United charges $1,000 for its program — and that includes five days of accommodation and meals along with the therapy. If the participant can’t afford the cost, they come free.

Murray said the price is important. Most firefighters in Ontario — about 60 per cent — are volunteers and many of the small rural municipalities can’t afford the expensive benefit packages provided to professional departments, he said.

Yet the volunteers do the same job and witness the same horrors as the professionals, he said. But after fighting fires or responding to accident scenes, the volunteers return to their jobs as farmers, factory workers or homemakers.

Asked why St. John’s is getting involved in providing PTSD therapy, Murray replies because there is a need for it.

Rev. Dr. Murray said the retreats are arranged for either an all-women’s group or an all-men’s group as many participants are more willing to open up to colleagues of their own gender.

Retired Fire Chief James Grant, a longtime St. John’s parishioner, can testify firsthand to the need. As a 50-year volunteer with the Edwardsburgh/Cardinal fire department, retiring as chief, and now serving as Fire Chaplain, Grant said he knows of many firefighters who suffered from PTSD.

Thirty or 40 years ago, they didn’t call it PTSD, Grant said, but volunteers would suddenly quit the fire service with no reason. Years later, the volunteers would hear stories of their former colleague having problems because of a past incidents, particularly if they related to children, he said.

“It would have made all the difference in the world” to have a first responders’ treatment program back then, Grant said.

Murray, too, had his brushes with PTSD during his 20 years with the OPP.

“The first suicide I ever went to in my career was another police officer,” he said. “I’ve lost friends and colleagues who suffered because of this.”

Donna Gladstone, chair of the church council, said the council was unanimously behind the first responder idea when Murray and Grant brought it to the congregation.
St. John’s always has been a pillar of the community, and many in its congregations have been first responders, she said.

The undertaking is huge for the small rural church, which ministers to about 150 families and averages 60 worshippers in the pew on Sunday.

Space is no problem. It has 12 classrooms for the 200 Sunday school children who attended the church during its heyday decades ago.

Those classrooms are largely unused, so they were renovated into dormitories and therapy rooms. Washrooms with showers were built, carpet laid and walls painted. Grant estimates the renovations cost the church $65,000.

Almost all of the work was done by parishioners, who worked feverishly to get things finished by Feb. 15th, 2018— before the first class arrived.

Grant and Murray said the volunteers worked since November 2017, sometimes 10-hour days, to get the church ready.

“This is a large undertaking for a small church, but it is our intention to make a difference to those who serve us 24-7,” Murray said. “Because of their willingness to give of themselves, they are now in need of our help.”

For a small rural church, we are making a difference as approximately 250 first responders have been through the program since starting in 2017 with upcoming retreats full. Our motto of “Helping Those who are First to Help us” is working.

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